By Byun Duk-kun
WASHINGTON, Nov. 1 (Yonhap) -- The U.S. presidential election is closely watched by friends and foes alike, and South Korea -- one of the closest and oldest U.S. allies -- is no exception, especially at a time when the rival candidates differ sharply on the alliance and North Korea.
Experts say that President Donald Trump has raised uncertainty over the alliance with South Korea, but he could still offer a better chance of making progress toward North Korea's denuclearization. His Democratic rival Joe Biden promises a return to the traditional view of the alliance, but North Korea would not be a top priority for him, they said.
"The ROK has always watched U.S. elections closely, but 2020 is particularly significant for the ROK," said Celeste Arrington, political science and international affairs professor at George Washington University. ROK stands for South Korea's official name, the Republic of Korea.
Arrington said that South Korea faced "enormous and arguably unprecedented swings" in how the U.S. handles the alliance, as well as North Korea, under the Trump administration.
Overall, Trump has undermined the Korea-U.S. alliance, she said.
"The unreasonable (in my opinion) burden sharing demands from the Trump administration and general disdain for the alliance have strained relations," she told Yonhap News Agency.
Americans will hit the polls Tuesday to decide who will shape the course of the United States, as well as its relationship with allies, such as South Korea, for the next four years, with over 80 million voters already having cast their ballots in either mail-in or early in-person voting.
Unlike in past elections, however, the outcome of the election may not immediately be available, even for days, according to election observers, partly due to the sheer number of mail-in votes that usually take longer to count than those cast in person.
Seoul faces many bilateral issues with the United States, including the transition of the wartime operational control of South Korean troops that has already been delayed several times and is again expected to miss Seoul's own target of May 2022, when the Moon Jae-in administration's five-year term will end.
Seoul and Washington are also deadlocked in negotiations to set South Korea's share of the cost in maintaining 28,500 U.S. soldiers on the Korean Peninsula.
South Korea has offered to boost its burden-sharing by up to 13 percent from the US$870 million it shouldered under last year's Special Measures Agreement (SMA), but the U.S. is said to be demanding a 50 percent hike to $1.3 billion.
Trump is reported to have initially demanded Seoul pay $5 billion per year.
"President Trump's 'America First' approach to foreign affairs has injected uncertainty into the alliance and regional policy. A second Trump administration could accelerate sudden and unilateral change without a thought-through plan about the consequences," said Patrick Cronin, chair for Asia-Pacific security at the Hudson Institute.
Arrington agreed the alliance will likely see more turbulence under a second Trump administration.
"Under a second Trump administration: Who knows! Few could have predicted the whiplash, including the fivefold burden sharing increase demand," she said.
A Biden administration, on the other hand, may bring stability and a sense of normalcy, they argued.
"A Biden administration would build on traditional bipartisan foreign policy norms and thus be more predictable and reliable," Cronin said.
The outlook was echoed by Bruce Klingner, senior research fellow at the Heritage Foundation.
"Biden would return to a traditional view of America's alliances as based on common values, principles and objectives. He would drop the Trump administration's demands for exorbitant increases in host nation support, threats to reduce U.S. forces and insulting rhetoric toward America's allies," he said.
Another expert here noted a Biden win would be great for South Korea if one looked at the U.S.-Korea alliance only in terms of trade and SMA talks, but said any Korean issue, including the North Korean nuclear issue, would not be a top priority of a Biden administration at least for some time.
"Biden will be pressed to make handling the coronavirus and rebuilding the economy a top priority, which would make sense. That means Korean Peninsula issues and specifically the North Korea issue will lay dormant for months, thanks to a two- to three-month policy review, at best," said Harry Kazianis, senior director of Korean studies at the Washington-based Institute for the National Interest.
"A Biden win means at least Seoul and Pyongyang will be waiting until the spring for any major movement on the issues they care about," he added.
He also argued a second Trump administration may have a greater chance of making progress toward the denuclearization of North Korea.
"I think if Donald Trump is reelected, he will push hard for a summit with Kim (Jong-un) and a deal that is based on the parameters laid out in Hanoi -- with both sides giving some ground to accommodate each other," Kazianis said.
Trump has held three meetings with the North Korean leader, becoming the first sitting U.S. president in June 2018 to hold a bilateral summit with a North Korean leader. Their talks have stalled since their second summit in Hanoi in February 2019 ended without a deal.
Those close to Trump have said he will immediately seek to hold a fourth summit with Kim and reach a deal if reelected, because he "personally went all in" on the North Korean issue, and because he does not like "loose ends" and North Korea is exactly that for him.
Still, many experts cast doubt over the effectiveness of Trump's summitry diplomacy.
"Eight international denuclearization agreements with North Korea have all failed because of the regime cheating or not implementing its promises. As such, there is little hope in a well-crafted comprehensive agreement that delineates all necessary requirements, including an extensive and intrusive verification regime," Klingner said.
"However, Trump might be tempted to sign a poorly crafted denuclearization accord or a premature peace agreement in an attempt to win a Nobel Peace Prize," he added.
Klingner also dismissed Trump's claim that he and his good, personal relationship with the North Korean leader are the only things standing between the United States and a nuclear war with the communist North.
"His claims of having prevented a war on the Korean Peninsula are disingenuous since there was no concerns of war in 2016, and the U.S. only moved towards a preventive attack in 2017 under the Trump Administration," Klingner said.
Biden has said he too will be willing to meet with the North Korean leader but only if North Korea promises to give up at least part of its nuclear weapons in what one of his foreign policy advisers, Brian McKeon, has called much necessary groundwork or pre-summit dialogue.
"Joe Biden understands that the North Korea issue is pretty complicated, and you can't just solve it with a couple of leader-to-leader summits," McKeon said earlier in an exclusive interview with Yonhap News Agency.
South Korea insists the peaceful denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula will remain the "ultimate goal" of the U.S. government regardless of who takes the top executive office here on Jan. 20.
"Regardless of which government comes next, making the establishment of a peace regime on the Korean Peninsula its ultimate goal is only natural," South Korean Ambassador to the U.S. Lee Soo-hyuck said in a press conference held last week.
"Our embassy will work to secure the foundation for our diplomatic efforts toward the United States over the next four years so that our government's peace process can move forward and the South Korea-U.S. alliance can stably develop regardless of which candidate wins the election."
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